Volume 46 Number 3
Pride Club, safe zones provide support for GLBT students
When it comes to GLBT-friendly, Visalia, California, in the heart of the conservative Central Valley, isn’t necessarily the first place that comes to mind.
Yet, the College of the Sequoias in Visalia has come a long way in creating a safe, tolerant and supportive atmosphere for GLBT students, thanks in large part to faculty like communications instructor Robin McGeehee.
“Over the years, things have gotten a lot better for GLBT students,” McGeehee said, “A lot has to do with stopping harassment and practicing a sense of tolerance. Plus, students gravitate to places that are safe and where they can find community. Many GLBT students feel safe and comfortable here.”
Active Pride Club
At least one of the reasons for that feeling of community is the active Pride Club on campus which McGeehee helped found – not exactly on purpose – when she was “outed” at a faculty meeting her first day on campus in 1999.
“We were talking about forming a club for GLBT students when someone said, ‘Robin is a lesbian. Let’s let her be the advisor,’ ” McGeehee said.
It may have been a bit unexpected, but McGeehee stepped up to the task. Over the years, the club has grown and has participated in a variety of community services, area Pride events, and has promoted more awareness of GLBT issues on campus.
“A lot of students get empowered when they get involved in the Pride Club, or in a Gay Straight Alliance. It’s only going to lead to higher involvement in school, and better students who are more engaged,” she said.
The club draws about 30 students to its weekly meeting, depending on topics that are discussed as well as student schedules.
“This is a family to me,” said Abraham Ayala-Miller. “You can just be yourself. It’s comforting. In high school I was in PFLAG, (Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays), but high school is different. Here, you’re out.”
Through the years, some students have especially stood out to McGeehee.
“There was a young Hmong student who came to me from one of the high schools. His family was highly religious and had tried different shamanic experiences to ‘get the gay out.’ He was just a scared kid,” McGeehee said “He came to the College of the Sequoias, and now he’s happily living in the Bay Area.”
But as an out lesbian woman on campus, McGeehee’s Pride Club role expanded to include not just students, but faculty.
“I’ve had closeted professors reaching out to me as well. Some came up in the beginning to tell me there weren’t any domestic partner benefits and would I mind bringing it up,” she said.
More advances have occurred since those early days. More faculty have been able to come out, domestic partner benefits are in place, and non-discrimination policies have been enacted. Under the leadership of Alicia Crumpler, a criminal justice instructor, and Gailerd Swisegood, a sociology faculty, who have become Pride Club advisors, several “Safe Zones” have been established throughout the campus.
“We’ve provided training for a number of faculty and staff so that GLBT students have someone to come to if they are feeling down or harassed. They just need to look for the ‘Safe Zone’ stickers,” Crumpler said.
“I know that GLBT students face depression and harassment. I had a student who was kicked out of his house,” Crumpler said. “We want to help them to graduate, to feel safe, supported, and to reach their goals.”
Though establishing ‘Safe Zones’ around campus may seem harmless enough, “Not everyone is going to think this is going to be a good idea,” Swisegood said. “People ask, ‘why do you need that?’ ”
Because so many instances of harassment and discrimination go unreported, it is common for faculty and administration to think their campus is “intolerance-free.” That’s exactly why it’s important for faculty to be aware of the issue.
What can faculty unions or colleges do?
“I think there needs to be non-discrimination policies in place and we must make sure faculty understands them, as well as creating safe zones, and days of education during the year,” McGeehee said. “We must make sure people are informed. For teachers, that may mean not assuming everyone is heterosexual. I think more than likely, there’s a GLBT student in the classroom.”
There are certainly GLBT faculty, and, although it is a personal decision for everyone, many students would like to see more openly gay instructors on campus.
“I think instructors should come out,” said Reymundo Buenrosto. “I think it would make it safer for us on campus and professionally. I want to go into education and we need to see that there are GLBT professionals.”
McGeehee acknowledges the challenges individuals may have in coming out. After all, a couple of years ago she was forced to resign as president of the parents organization at her son’s parochial school because of it. That experience only emboldened her to become even more active. She went on to found National Equality, (at www. Getequal.org ) which took action to overturn the military’s Don’t Ask Don’t Tell policy. McGeehee coordinated the arrests at the White House, and she was arrested three times for chaining herself to the White House, but in the end, the policy was repealed.
Why did McGeehee become an activist?
She explained, “When you fight so hard to make sense of your own identity, really not going to settle for anything less than being treated with dignity and equality. You are fighting for dignity. I’ve accepted it and I’m going to make sure I’m going to get fair treatment. Harvey Milk was making that call in the ‘70s. The best thing you can do is come out.”